The False Affordability Of Film Photography?

We spoke recently about how you can quite easily get started in film photography for £27, and then even more recently how film photography on a shoestring can cost a mere £12 to begin.

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Since writing 35hunter, I’ve been all in favour of proclaiming the affordability of shooting film, and hopefully puncturing some myths that it’s an expensive and exclusive hobby only for the well heeled.

So why do I now seem to be suggesting that this affordability of film photography is false? 

It all comes down to my own story.

I’ll try to keep it short, but detailed enough to give you enough insight that you might avoid some of the pitfalls yourself.

In those posts linked to above I talked about one cheap body and one cheap lens to get going, then using cheap film and processing.

Take the £12 example as a starting point, which bought me a Canon EOS 500, Helios 44-2 58/2 M42 lens, M42 to EOS adapter and a couple of rolls of AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200.

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If we assume buying a film and having it processed is around £5, and that we shoot a roll of film a week, this adds up to 52 x £5 + the initial £12 outlay, a total of £272.

Divide by 12 and we have a hobby that costs a shade under £23 a month. Within the realms of affordability for most of us.

Especially when I consider people I know who spend double that every month on gym membership, or a satellite/cable TV subscription. Or more than that on coffee every single week.

It’s very little to pay for such a vital passion as ours.

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The problems for me started when I realised just how affordable it all was. 

My inner bargain hunter / thrift seeker / cheapskate / Scrooge revelled in this heady excitement and the fact that beautiful vintage lenses and cameras could be mine for a few pounds.

All kinds of weird and wonderful expired film could also be mine for a few pounds too. Plus it was usually cheaper bought in bulk lots of four or eight or 28 rolls.

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So £5 here, £12 there, occasionally £20 elsewhere, and certainly more than a few 99p triumphs, all seemed innocuous, bargain purchases in isolation.

But then one day I realised I’d hoarded not just one or two bargains, but one or two dozen.

Some days later still, I decided to lay it all out together to see the full damage (it’s amazing how much you can cram in boxes), and realised I had close to 60 cameras and maybe another 20 lenses.

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Estimating that each camera/lens probably cost on average £15, and that I had around 80 in total, the maths was rather frightening. 15 x 80 = £1200.

Now I didn’t spend this all at once of course. But if I’d bought just that one shoestring camera and lens for £12, I’d still have nearly all of that £1200 left over the same period. 

Plus arguably I’d be more focused on the real purpose on why I photograph with less options to distract and confuse me.

Looking at it another way, there isn’t a dream camera (for me) I’m aware of that I could have mine for maybe £500, let alone £1200.

I could have bought that Contax S2b and a couple of Zeiss lenses. Or even one of those German L cameras. 

Or spent it on trips to new places that would have given me fresh inspiration, or a couple of handfuls of books by some of the photography greats of the past. Or, at that £23 a month, funded over four years of buying and processing film.

£1200 goes a long way in this hobby.

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On reflection now, I don’t have any major regrets.

I’ve sold a lot of the stuff I bought, and rarely lost money, often making a decent profit.

I am the photographer I am today, with the experience I have, because of the paths I’ve chosen in the last ten year or so.

However, if I was starting again now, I would not have bought so so many cameras and lenses that ultimately all do much the same thing.

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I’m still looking for ways to simplify, and cut through to the raw essence of photography. 

My entire photographic arsenal now fills three small shelves in a bookcase. But what if it could fill just two. Or just one? Or just my pocket or the palm of my hand?

This reducing in itself can be just as dangerous and addictive.

I’m currently thinking of thinning my digital kit (I’m not quite ready to rely just on my iPhone though I do enjoy it more than ever) by buying an older 8 or 10MP CCD Ricoh GRD compact to use as my main camera, replacing both the iPhone, my DLSRs, and the NEX for most occasions.

Which of course costs an initial outlay, even if I could get it back by selling what it might replace afterwards.

 

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Back to the pint of writing and sharing this post. If I was to advise anyone starting out with film (or anyone trying to reduce their film photography kit), I would still point them to a simple, cheap set up.

Like that Canon EOS and Helios lens, or a Spotmatic and Takumar or a Pentax M or A body with an M or A series lens.

More importantly, I’d further suggest they stick to it – focus on mastering that one set up, shooting lots of film (of the same type) and getting to know their equipment, and themselves as a photographer.

More stuff and more choice is just an unnecessary distraction from this invaluable journey.

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Have you fallen into to the false affordability of film trap yourself? Please tell us about it in the comments below. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this post with others you feel will enjoy it too.

34 thoughts on “The False Affordability Of Film Photography?”

  1. DISCIPLINE is the word here!

    A film photographer has to show a major amount of discipline with all that pro-gear now available for cheap, M42 lenses for virtually free… Discipline in shooting is essential too. Don’t point and shoot, point, think and shoot!

    You don’t need that Leica, Nikon F or Contax T2! I promise you. Any cheap Canonet 17 QLIII, Spotmatic or Olympus XA does the trick! Guaranteed! If your photos are not good with those, sorry but look for another hobby!

    Take that from the world’s most undisciplined old guy!

    1. I felt I could write this post because I’ve used a fair range of cameras and lenses over the last few years and concluded that there isn’t a huge difference between them. Obviously hundreds of thousands (millions!) of photographers before me have gone through a similar exploration and concluded much the same. Maybe everyone has to go through it and wouldn’t just take my advice.

      It’s impossible to know if I had picked just a couple of bodies and lenses four or five years ago and shot the same amount of photographs, whether I would any “better” as a photographer. I have gained experience in the breadth of machines I’ve used, but has this compromised my mastering of one and/or distracted me from bettering the core elements of photography – essentially composition and light? Probably.

      What I have noticed very recently is looking back at the few thousand photographs I shot with my Nikon Coolpix in 2011/12 when that was my only camera, aren’t really much different to what I shoot now with a film or digital SLR. This in a way is disappointing- “why haven’t I improved!”, but in a way pleasing that I found a style of some kind years ago and have been exploring subtle variations since. (The last two shots above were with the Coolpix, and I think I appreciate them more now than I did at the time.)

      I know now I have little interest in trying any other film cameras, and I never had much interest in digital cameras anyway, so it hasn’t been hard to resist buying lots of those.

      Except maybe that Ricoh GR D, which promises the compactness of the Nikon Coolpix with a prime lens, more character (from other peoples’ pictures I’ve seen), better control and ergonomics!

      1. Guess it’s a phase anyone going (back) to film must go through. To find himself, to find the right tool.

        Your style stayed mostly the same you say. So you already developed it. You just needed the tool.

      2. Yeh Frank, I pretty much developed a style with Sony camera phones two or three years before I decided to get a “proper” camera and bought the Coolpix. I’ve always liked a lot of nature shots, usually close up with a shallow depth of field. The Coolpix has a very close “macro” mode and PASM control so shooting this style wasn’t hard. Plus it has a very cool “High Contrast Mono” mode which I used maybe 75% of the time anyway, and gave me very pleasing b/w shots, the likes of which I’ve struggled to emulate with b/w film, ironically!

  2. Warning headed but too late for me though I am now focusing on reducing the collection of cameras I actually use. Two more going on the market next week hopefully.
    BTW I am shocked about the £5 for the film and processing costs you stated ; where are you going to get it that cheap?

    1. Over here I order a roll of HP5 for about 5€ and 3 rolls of Superia 200 for about 11€ online.

      Developing at home in Rodinal for b&w costs no more than 10 cent a go and color dev costs about 1,5€.

      Scanning on my Plustek 8100 costs the price of the scanner divided by about 150 rolls to this day (about 1€ a roll) tendency falling.

      So buying the film and having it developed and scanned in a hopefully good quality for 5£ is great!! But it’s possible in top quality with a bit of self involvement.

      1. Yes, if you want to got the super frugal route, then home developing and scanning of b/w is the way forward!

        I used to loathe scanning, let alone developing myself, and just don’t have the time, so it was never an option for me – I’d rather pay £4-5 a roll for someone else to do it. Especially when I was shooting 12-15 rolls a month.

          1. I just remembered yesterday I have my scanner in the loft and am going to sell it soon. I liked the financial cost saving, but the question became “would I rather spend two hours hunched over my computer scanning a roll of film, or go out for a walk with a camera and shoot some more?” It was a complete “no-brainer”!

      2. Seems it’s cheaper in Europe for sure. I really must get to developing my own film, I have all the gear and have done it before just haven’t made time for it.

    2. Have you noticed any benefits from using fewer cameras?

      Re the film, when I started a few years ago I went to a pro lab and it was significantly more. But then I soon discovered my local Asda, and for a few years used their lab about 10 miles from me. Processing was £2 a roll and scanning to CD was £1 per CD, up to four rolls. So I’d take in four rolls at a time and it cost me £9 to have them all developed and put on a single CD.

      This went up in time to £2.50 a roll and £2 for the CD, so four rolls cost a total of £12.

      I’ve rarely paid more than £2 per roll of film – either AgfaPhoto Vista Plus 200 from Poundland at £1 a roll, or expired film from eBay, usually Kodak Color Plus or Fuji Superia 100. I also bought a ton of Ferrania Solaris 200 when they used to sell TWIN packs in Poundland for £1!

      I haven’t shot much film this year and when I have I’ve gone to my more local camera shop. Processing and scanning to CD last time I went I think worked out at £15 for three rolls, again scanned to one CD. I know the Asda lab was taken over by a separate company and haven’t used them or seen their prices. Many supermarkets do a similar service (especially Asda and Tesco) though I know many send them away so the turnaround is a few days or a week.

      1. No not yet, still in the process of thinning down which means using the cameras I am selling just to make sire they work like I think they do.
        I use my local camera shop which uses a professional processing lab and that is more expensive; I could switch to a pharmacy based place I guess and I might but I slightly doubt the quality and more importantly I want to support my local camera shop as they are very friendly and a good source of film.
        I kinda wish I had stocked up on film when it started going out of fashion but wasn’t shooting film myself then so didn’t think about it.
        I did recently pick up some expired stock at a reasonable price still more than it looks like you pay

      2. It’s good that you support your local camera shop.

        I love expired film as in the pick and mix aspect. But if I was starting over or advising someone new to film I’d say just buy a batch of a dozen rolls of AgfaPhoto Vista Plus or Fuji C200 (same film, different branding) or Kodak Color Plus 200.

        They’re all very forgiving and flexible films and online should be pretty cheap to buy. A few years expired they should be even cheaper.

        1. I keep considering the big reals and rolling my own as I believe that is very economical but I’m not sure I can be bothered.

          1. I thought about that a couple of years back, getting a huge roll of b/w film and a bunch of reusable canisters. I would have been a bit cheaper, but as you say, I really couldn’t be bothered!

            I think when we all have limited time for photography (not just the time we’re taking pictures but all the supporting activities too) it’s important to maximise the parts we like most.

            For me, top of the list is actually being out walking and taking pictures.

            Bottom of the list is any kind of extensive processing afterwards, or set up and preparation before.

            I’m even starting to considering going back to using a digital compact P&S and shooting JPEG only for a while (gasp!), just to have that simplicity and maximum photowalk time.

          2. have you looked at the new Yashica that they have on kickstarter? It’s a digital camera but you use film style ‘canisters to decide the type of photography you want to do. Load a black and white one for b&w, a high speed one for something else. You even have to wind on! 🙂
            It’s an odd concept but I kind of like the idea and invested 🙂

          3. I’ve seen the campaign on KickStarter and it looks very much like a Lomography launch! Could be interesting but seems a bit gimmicky.

            Depends on price really, if it’s cheap enough but decent quality it might attract enough buyers.

            But there are so many digital options – including very affordable DSLR and mirrorless bodies that can easily use your existing vintage glass – and infinite post processing options via film presets etc.

            Also iPhones with apps like Hipstamatic give really impressive results. And if you want something with more control and more of a camera feel, there are thousands of digital compacts that can be had for next to nothing if they’re a few years old. Again combine with a handful of film presets in LightRoom and it’s easy to have a simple digital shooter with minimal post processing that can create interesting images away from the clinical crisp look of most modern digital kit.

            I can see if you like the look of the Yashica images straight out of the camera it could be a fun and simple way of shooting digital. But it doesn’t appeal to me personally.

            Going by the investment so far though it looks like it’ll sell out quick!

          4. It’s definitely gimmicky but I figured for $150 US it’s not a lot of money and I think it’s quirky enough to get a cult following which should make it a reasonable investment as I think I’ll get at least my money back reselling it if I don’t like it.

          5. Usually dollars to pounds converts directly 1:1 these days for things like this. I’m pretty tight when it comes to cameras, well anything for that matter! £150 to me is loads for a “toy” camera, and I’ve only spent more than that once on any single camera in my life.

            I’ll look forward to hearing your experiences of it when it arrives, and of course seeing the photographs…

          6. It’s not a small amount for sure. I have spent more before; 2x DSLRs plus my current digital and another couple I can think of

          7. Remember you’re talking to the person who wrote a post about getting started in film photography for £27, then thought that was too much and wrote a follow up post on doing it for £12… : )

      3. Also, I am still documenting my cameras on my blog so not yet there on just using what I have regularly. I am definitely in tune with your point on using one camera and getting familiar with it. …soon 🙂

    1. Those prices when you were young(er) Jim are amazing, I didn’t realise it used to be so expensive.

      In my childhood, my nan was the main (in fact pretty much the only) picture taker of family events, days out, holidays etc.

      I remember her having one of those long slim Kodaks that flip open like a large plastic flick knife – the part that open providing the handle to hold.

      Something like this – http://camerapedia.wikia.com/wiki/Kodak_Ektralite_500

      She used to get her (110) film processed in town at a camera store (this was in the 80s) and I remember the deal being when you had your film processed you got a free film for the next time. I remember the Truprint name being big back then.

      I have no idea how much it cost and she always had prints made (no other options back then) but with the free film it must have been pretty affordable.

      Yes I completely agree, shooting film remains very affordable. Especially if you stick to one or two cameras. : )

      1. That Kodak 110 was so cool when it came out, I so wanted one, ended up getting a lesser brand.
        I remember getting a free film back with processing when you posted your film off in the special envelope (like trueprint) People used to say that the film you got back was rubbish but I didn’t notice any problems, there were only a few manufacturers of film so it had to be made by one of them anyway

  3. In the short time I’ve been shooting film, I’ve learned much the same lesson Dan.

    I got the the point of having four or five separate cameras, each with half a roll of film still to shoot and no finished pictures! Plus a number of others all waiting to be tried out. So I had a big thin out of the kit, and actually decided to spend the money on a reasonable digital compact and concentrate a little on mastering that. I did seriously considered one of the older Ricoh GRs, but a “must have” feature (according to my 9yo daughter) was a flip out screen to make YouTube videos! So I have my current Nikon Coolpix S9900 which seems very nice indeed.

    However, that coincided exactly with my mate at work giving me his old Minolta XG-1 with some decent quality lenses too. Consequently, I’ve not yet used the Nikon nearly as much as I would have hoped to.

    And my arsenal of compact 35mm P&S cameras is growing again too….. The decision regarding which camera to take out with me is almost as complex as it ever was!

    Eric Kim has some interesting ideas on his blog about imposing limitations and that actually being a positive thing. For instance, deciding only to shoot digital for a few months, or only black and white film, or only with the iPhone etc. etc.

    I see some merit in that as the above mentioned “what to carry today” decision is then ready-made. I love shooting film through old SLRs – it’s the mechanical nature of them appealing to my engineer’s hands. But I want to master shooting with my compact Nikon too. Self-imposed limitations will probably be the only way I can establish the discipline to be decisive enough to make that happen!

    1. Hi Richard, I always tried to only have film in one camera at a time, and kept detailed notes of which film it was, and what camera and lens I was using, as I have film processed in batches and wouldn’t remember otherwise!

      The downside is if/when I had a camera I didn’t like much, I would try to rattle through the film quicker to get to a camera I did like, and then ended up with loads of shots that never should have been photographs in the first place. So it felt like a waste of film, and money.

      I’m sure the CoolPix is great – my “old” one from 2011 is still very impressive (to me). I’ve just posted part one of a two part post comparing my few digital cameras and what to keep and what to sell, and the CoolPix is one of them.

      35mm compacts can be so addictive. I think what helped me hugely was deciding that if I was going to use a compact and sacrifice the control of an SLR, it had better be genuinely compact and pocketable. A Pentax M or A body with a smallish lens like an A 50/2 is about the same size as some “compacts”.

      So this criteria eliminated about 90% of so called compacts! The Olympus Mju-1, LT-1 and Ricoh R1 all qualify as being trouser pocketable and true point and shoots, just as they should be. Once I’d made this decision, I lost interest in all larger compacts (and all compact zooms) virtually overnight.

      Yes limiting our choices is a widely known benefit to creativity in all areas. I have tried to do this with one month one camera challenges but usually failed pretty quickly!

      I do generally only go out now with one camera at a time, and one, maybe two lenses. But I use one lens for a while then put it away and use the other, then go home. I don’t keep chopping and changing between them throughout the whole photowalk. It really helps to get familiar with one lens, its focal length and behaviours.

      Discipline is the word, I think Frank mentioned it above too. I can’t help but compare it to marriage. Yeh, being single and having flings left right and centre sounds exciting for a while. But committing to one person and building a life and family with them brings the kind of rewards you can never get without that discipline and commitment.

      I do feel photography is similar, and committing to even one of each type of camera (say, 35mm SLR, DSLR, 35mm compact, digital compact) can and will reap rewards in the long term. I’m happy to say I’m finally close to finding my photography life partner in all of those categories!

  4. i still have all my old Minolta,s, thats SR, SRT, XD, XE, and XK, i have several from each series plus lenses including a Novoflex 400mm Pigriff, plus i still regularly use my Mamiya M645 1000’s although i have thinned out my lenses as i usually only use the 55-110 and 105-210 mm zoom lenses plus my 35mm wide angle, my biggest problem like you has been film, i often see large chunks for sale on ebay and for a while i bought it regardless, but recently i’ve set limits and cant understand why people including me i must admit, would pay more for old out of date film than you can buy new, so if i can get five rolls of asa 160 Porta from 7dayshop for under £28 including delivery, why would i pay more than £24 for the same film that’s out of date and you have no idea how its been stored, but you often see this film going for way more than it can be worth i’ve seen people fight it out in the dying minutes often pushing the price to almost double what it should reasonably be, so yes even the experienced (older photographers ) who grw up with film can often be swept up in the madness we call photography…

    1. Andy, thanks for your comments. Actually what spurred my latest (and hopefully last) purge of stuff I don’t need via eBay was my wife asking if she could remove some of the film in our freezer to make way for food!

      When I got it all out I realised I had something like 200 rolls of film, and this year I’ve shot only a handful. Crazy having all that in there when someone else could be using it.

      It is the whole consumption/GAS thing that’s addictive, and I guess film and cameras just happens to be our thing. It could be vintage model cars or Star Wars memorabilia or drugs or one night stands…

      Finding a way to address that desire and to be happy with what we have (which goes much deeper than objects like cameras) is the key.

  5. Bit late to the party here Dan but what I would comment is that your time with film will have taught you more about composition and discipline than you could ever have got using Digital (I’m paraphrasing Frank here). You also haven’t touched on the delay with processing – film is kinda like the slow food movement !!
    Also how many hobbies would have cost you less in real terms – if you took up mountain biking you’d have paid treble at least by now.

    Also there is the chance to try such an array of great cameras for peanuts.

    I’ll also ask you did any digital ever leave you with same grin you had with the halina panorama I sent you ?

    1. Thanks for your comments and questions Alan!

      Absolutely agree about how much film has taught me about photography, and about how cameras work and how to get the look I like out of them. This is all infinitely helpful now, using film or digital cameras.

      Yes, photography is still a pretty affordable hobby even if you included my entire spending on kit and film over the last five years.

      Being able to try so many camera is a major appeal. But I think after a while you realise that while there are many categories of camera, within each category there isn’t much difference. Even more so with SLR lenses. For me the trying of new cameras just lost its appeal once I found those I really liked.

      Regarding the Halina, actually the camera that its closest to (and even more so the Vivitar UWS and clones) is my iPhone with the Hipstamtic app. I love how easy it is to take colour saturated, vignetted images and make ordinary things look far more interesting!

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